The future of dispensaries in Vancouver is uncertain, but many remain hopeful

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Courtesy of Lift Magazine

After a wave of well over a hundred medical cannabis dispensaries began operating in Vancouver in 2014, the city began to undertake a process to manage this unchecked proliferation through a licensing regime. Although Kimberly, BC was the first city to issue a business licence to a dispensary, Vancouver became the first large city anywhere in Canada to begin formally regulating medical cannabis dispensaries.

In 2015, the city announced their Medical Marijuana Related Use licensing regime (MMRU), receiving more than 100 applications, and issued their first license in May, 2016. Since the end of 2017, the city had issued 15 business licenses and about another 30 applicants are actively working their way through the three stage licensing process. In addition to these, the city lists 60 retail cannabis business operating without city approval that are ‘subject to enforcement’.

While the future of the city’s licensing regime and the dispensaries within it is still unknown, the Province of British Columbia has intimated that they are seeking to unveil a retail licensing plan in January, 2018 that could potentially allow cities like Vancouver to integrate their existing licensing programs and business into a retail, nonmedical cannabis market.

What this will mean for dispensaries is still an unknown. The city says they will continue to license dispensaries until the federal and provincial frameworks are in place. Some dispensaries who have already received their licence remain hopeful, while those still trying to navigate the lengthy and often confusing licensing process are more frustrated. CAMCD, the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, who helped consult with the city in their MMRU licensing program, helped connect Lift with some of their members who are at different stages in the licensing process to discuss where they see the future of Vancouver dispensaries going, and what other cities might be able to learn from the city.

Sunrise Wellness Foundation

Ehren Richardson, the VP of CAMCD, as well as the Director at Sunrise Wellness, a dispensary currently making its way through the city’s licensing program, says he thinks Vancouver’s progressive approach to managing dispensaries will give the city an advantage in a future legal recreational market.

“Many other municipalities may see the number of dispensaries defying the city of Vancouver as a negative, but they must remember that Vancouver was the first in the city to introduce a medical cannabis retail bylaw, which was as forward thinking, as were the safe injection sites.

“What other cities can learn from Vancouver is vast. Some of the standout lessons: consider your board of variance before you finalize your bylaw so that your BOV is not overwhelmed with appeals; 300 meter distancing is arbitrary and compared to liquor store distancing is ridiculous; consider your zoning carefully so that you do not end up concentrating dispensaries in certain areas of your municipality; make your license fee reasonable and base it on revenue, not a flat rate, because there are large and small volume dispensaries and often it is the small volume dispensaries that are good actors but have difficulty affording all the fees.”

Related:

Vancouver continues dispensary licensing ahead of legalization

What will legalization mean for BC’s dispensaries?

CAMCD  is a non-profit established to help promote a regulated, community-based approach to medical cannabis access. Sunrise Wellness is a retail location operating in Vancouver since early 2014, with two locations in the final stage of the city’s licensing process.

Aura Cannabis

One retailer that has successfully made it through the city’s licensing program, Aura Cannabis, operating in since 2014, sees a lot of potential for other cities to learn from Vancouver. Andrew Gordon, Aura’s Director of Operations, says the licensing process wasn’t easy, but that the city was active in working with businesses to help ensure they could meet all criteria. Maintaining a positive relationship with not only the city, but with their neighbours has been key to their success, he says.

“Of course, there have been challenges negotiating an uncharted process,” says Gordon, “however, the city has been supportive and cooperative. We ensured we understood and complied with the regulations and sought to be good community citizens so there was little push back from the community. We will continue to maintain close communication with regulators at all levels of government on issues concerning licensing and community development.”

Looking at cities like Toronto, which have taken a very different approach to their own dispensaries, Gordon says what’s needed is more engagement from retailers and the city, as well as the public.

“Keep the communities and the industry engaged, talking and interacting on all matters relating to cannabis dispensaries,” continues Gordon. “This will reduce fear, unsupported concerns, and give the industry a change to display its ability to contribute to the community.

“Communication is key to cooperation: whatever an ideal communication or information cycle looks like for your community, council or department, please consider it as a key pillar for the entire exercise. One thing I can say for sure is that each positive relationship we have built with the City is a result of open communication.”

As the retail landscape changes and consumers have more and more options, retailers like Aura, says Gordon, will have to increasingly focus on a positive, unique retail experience for the consumer. Knowing who your customers are and what kind of experience they want is also crucial.

“Our typical customer represents a diverse array of young working professionals, Gen Xers, active seniors and passionate pet owners,” he says. “They see value in a balanced lifestyle because they experience the positive health benefits directly.

“We see the numbers coming out of Colorado, Washington and now California and believe the opportunities lie in the retail side of the business. However, retail success is only accomplished through a great brand, a strong commitment to the customer and a superior supply chain.

“Aura has built a strong brand through focusing on our customer experience. We believe boutique retailers will have a competitive advantage in a crowded market space.”

Eggs Canna

Eggs Canna Inc was established in Vancouver in 2014, with their first location on Kingsway, and they have since opened four additional locations within the City of Vancouver and one in Nanaimo. Eggs’ location at E 16th was licensed by the city in May 2017.

Like others, Oana Nicoara, the Director for Eggs Canna, is also mostly positive about the process with the city. But she also highlights many of the challenges her business has with adhering to the regulations, as well as the challenges faced by many others still trying to get their own business license.

“Since the City of Vancouver introduced their regulatory framework in June of 2015, the process has been challenging and quite turbid. I commend the City of Vancouver on legitimizing this industry, and most importantly including the dispensaries currently operating in their framework, but the process of obtaining a license has left many dispensary owners confused, and without a business.”

Many of these challenges have been highlighted in the ongoing variance process for dispensaries, who have run into issues with the city’s 300 m distancing rule preventing them from being too close to parks, community centres and other dispensaries. Nicoara points out she had to move one of her stores to avoid this zoning issue, and that both business owners as well as the city have had a steep learning curve regulating something no one else in Canada had regulated on this scale.

“I have been very fortunate to have been able to relocate one of my stores and obtain a Business License,” says Nicorara, “and have two other locations currently in the process of obtaining a license, but this was not an easy fete. This was a learning curve for both the business owners and the City, which has lead to many mistakes and feelings of anger and despair on the part of the business owners.

“I hope that in the future and with legalization looming around the corner other municipalities learn from the City of Vancouver and this process becomes more fair and better executed. Some of the challenges business owners including myself have faced have been the exorbitant licensing fees of $30,000 a year, the difficulty in relocating to a City approved site due to the stigma attached to dispensaries and the landlords’ refusal to sign leases with such businesses, the sheer volume of business owners who were trying to relocate all during the same time period, and the financial burden of signing leases and paying rent while undergoing a licensing process without any guarantee that even if you find a city approved site they would not still deny your application based on the neighbourhood responses or some other infraction not disclosed to you during your initial application.”

Village Bloomery

One dispensary that has been stymied by these challenges so far is Village Bloomery, located on W Second, near Granville Island. Operating since mid 2015, co-owners Andrea Dobbs and her husband Jeremy Jacob have been very proactive with the city, even trying to apply for a business license before the city had established their MMRU program.

When the city finally did announce their licensing regime, Dobbs says she was initially ‘ecstatic’, but that since that time, she has become frustrated by the zoning bylaws and a licensing ‘lottery’ due to too many business located near each other. Despite widespread community support and one board of variance meeting, she says they are still waiting to make their case before the board of variance again in late January.

“We wound up in a lottery process that was less than elegant and lost out so we were sent to the BOV (Board of Variance).We put up our development sign but despite our having submitted 300+ letters of support in favour of us moving forward, the last round of public consult ended up with 28 letters opposed to dispensaries and has us back at the BOV. We’re presenting Jan. 24th, 2018.”

Related:

Kerry Jang on Vancouver’s dispensary regulations

Jang: Vancouver’s dispensary licensing could take years to complete

While she remains positive about the city’s program, she says other municipalities could learn a lot from Vancouver’s mistakes, namely in better empowering city staff.

“Other cities can learn to support their staffers…inform them and ensure they are given reasonable time for processing. I refer in particular to the first round of BOV’s, it was brutal. The volunteer Board of Variance was seeing multiple dispensary cases a night, working late into the night hearing passionate and sometimes angry presentations. The staffers in charge of licensing were pushed to the limits as well.  I’m pretty sure it was a recipe for burn out. I think creating a liaison between the city and the shop keepers would be a good idea to ease the tensions that may arise.

“The city has become very knowledgeable and could help cities who want to follow suit by simply educating them on best practices, creating good working relationships with stakeholders and possibly putting more energy towards educating the public through public meetings and press events.”

Vancouver Dispensary

The post The future of dispensaries in Vancouver is uncertain, but many remain hopeful appeared first on Lift News.

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